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News: 24 June 2019

Focus on Telephone Boxes

Over 2000 telephone boxes are featured on the Images of England website. Here, Survey Co-ordinator, Claire Pearce, tells us about the significance of the small red box that has made such an impact on the English landscape.

Telephone boxes in various forms have been a roadside feature for almost a century. Along with other street furniture encountered on a regular basis such as milestones, lamp posts, bollards, fire hydrants and letter boxes, these distinctive red telephone boxes are often overlooked in favour of other prominent buildings. Not as much thought is given as to their architectural and historical importance or indeed why they are listed, particularly with the current popularity of mobile phones.

K1 Telephone Kiosk, Bembridge, Isle of Wight - IoE Number: 310061 © Mrs A.J. Goodchild
The first public call boxes were put into use in 1908. Since then thousands of kiosks have been placed all over the country from remote rural areas to seaside resorts and in clusters in city centres. Initially, when phone boxes were first produced, they were far too few of them to warrant commissioning a unified design. It wasn't, therefore, until the service expanded and was taken over by the General Post Office in 1912 that a standard design was sought resulting in Kiosk No. 1 or K1. Built of concrete on three sides with a wooden door, moulded cornice and metal finial with the word 'telephone' on all four sides on metal plaques, the K1 was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1921. This design did not prove successful however and was superseded by further kiosk designs. Today only a handful of examples of the K1 style still exist such as this one on the Isle of Wight.
The K2 (Kiosk No. 2) came into service in 1923 following a competition organised by the Royal Fine Art Commission. The design put forward by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was chose as the winner and the resulting box was constructed from cast iron with a domed roof and painted red. The four panels above the telephone lettering (now above the glazing) enclosed perforated crowns which provided ventilation and was a reference to the royal crest also used on the GPOs post boxes. The boxes were glazed with 18 panes to two sides and the door. The majority of these kiosks were located in London; 202 of the 205 now with listed status can be found within Greater London.
K2 Telephone Kiosk, Burlington House, Westminster, Greater London - IoE Number: 423824 © Mr Stephen Hodgson

K3 Telephone Kiosk, London Zoo, Greater London - IoE Number: 207750 © Mrs Vanessa Lambert
A design combining the materials of the K1 and the design of the K2 followed in 1929 meaning it could be produced cheaply. Although over 12,000 were erected, there are only three listed on the Images of England website. One is located adjacent to the parrot house at London Zoo and the others are a pair at Cobham Bus Museum in Esher, Surrey. Concrete proved a difficult material to build the kiosks from and was prone to breaking in transit and in positioning them. Once in place the paint peeled easily from the concrete shell.
At the time the K3 design was being rolled out another design, Kiosk No. 4, was also being produced. This was built to provide the services of a telephone kiosk along with that of the post office, incorporating a stamp vending device and letter box. The dimensions of the box had to be increased to accommodate all of these facilities and resulted in a bulky design of which only 50 were produced. Five examples of the K4 can still be seen in England and include similar features of the K2 design. For example, built of cast iron, it also features perforated crowns to the top panels for ventilation, a domed roof and equal-sized glazed panels to doors and sides. In addition to these features, there is a stamp vending machine situated on the rear of the box along with a letter box and a lamp overhead. Their popularity was hindered by their shape (they were much larger than other designs), the noise of the stamp vending machine interfering with telephone calls and damp penetrating the machine and affecting the dispensing of the rolls of stamps.

In 1934, a 'mobile' design was produced, although no examples are known to survive today as the box never entered production. A great deal removed from the mobile telephones we are now familiar with today, Kiosk No. 5 was designed to be transported and placed temporarily at different locations.

K4 Telephone Kiosk, Bewdley, Worcestershire - IoE Number: 156986 © Mr Philip Williamson LRPS
K6 Telephone Kiosks, Truro, Cornwall - IoE Number: 377494 © Mr Jeremy Gray In the mid-1930s, it was decided that a new design was needed that incorporated the best of the previous kiosks and the K6 was commissioned to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V, thus it also became known as the 'Jubilee Kiosk'. Once again designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, it is by far the most recognised design now, with over 1800 examples surviving with listed status in England in addition to further examples located in gardens all over the country and available to buy at auction for enthusiasts. The K6 became the most successful kiosk produced in the thirties and, some may say, ever!

The K6 was the first kiosk design to be rolled out on a massive scale outside of London. Initially it appeared in every town and village that had a post office, providing many people with a service they previously had had no access to. Eventually the phone boxes were put into service in other areas and replaced the earlier models of K1 and K3. From it's inception in 1936 until the end of the decade, over 20,000 K6s were erected and became a well-known sight at the side of the road. Painted bright red like its predecessors, the K6 design can be distinguished by its differences to previous kiosks, such as the change to marginal glazing bars on the windows and doors and unperforated crowns on the panels. The design retains the domed roof and telephone lettering above the glazing on the door and windows.

Although the majority of kiosks were painted red, there are a few exceptions. In some areas it was felt that the colour of the kiosks should be toned down somewhat, particularly in areas of outstanding beauty. Battleship grey or black was used on some boxes in these areas making them less conspicuous. In Kingston on Hull where an independent service to GPO and latterly BT was operated, they used white kiosks as opposed to the standard red ones, examples of which can still be found today.
There are also other types of telephone box listed in England, photographic examples of which can be found on the Images of England website. Possibly the most recognised of these is the police call box, due in no small part to its appearance as the 'Tardis' in the television series Doctor Who. The 'tardis' style police call box were built for public and police use and could effectively double as a makeshift cell, and came complete with light positioned on the top for attracting the attention of other officers on duty. Painted blue and made from timber, very few examples of these buildings remain, although good examples can be found in Huddersfield and Wakefield in West Yorkshire.

Other examples of police call boxes come in the form of tall rectangular cast iron posts, painted dark blue with a glass lens on the top in a four-columned finial. A small hinged door on the side of the post protects the compartment which holds the telephone intended for the use of both public and police. Their construction of cast iron has resulting in more examples of this type of police call boxes surviving than the timber 'Tardis' variety.

Police Call Box, Houndsditch, Greater London - IoE Number: 434738 © Mr Jim Buckley LRPS

AA Box, Mere, Cheshire, - IoE Number: 58578 © Mr Barrie S. Dixon

The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) and the Automobile Association (AA) also erected their own calls boxes, some of which still survive and have been listed as buildings of historic interest. Examples of the surviving kiosks can be found on the Images of England website. The AA, founded in 1905, built their first roadside box in 1911 originally intended for staff use, which were later used by members. These distinctive boxes were built of wood, painted black and gold with the AA's symbol on one door and in the gable of each face. The RAC boxes, designed in the 1930s, were also of wooden construction, but painted blue and displaying the RAC plaque in a recessed panel in all sides. Fewer examples of the RAC boxes still exist today.

Many people are unaware that thousands of phone boxes, consisting of various types outlined above, have been granted listed status, and wonder about the significance of them. They are often taken for granted standing by the side of the road, or in the centre of a town square, forming part of both urban and rural landscape amongst other street furniture, both new and old.

Their designation as listed buildings arose due to the threat of their widespread removal and replacement in the mid-1980s following the privatisation and separation of the Post Office Telecommunications from Royal Mail. British Telecom planned to replace the boxes with a more modern design, resistant to vandalism and with easier disabled access (previous models sat on a raised concrete plinth). Faced with the prospect of the destruction of an iconic piece of 1920s and 1930s industrial design, campaigning began by the Thirties Society, accompanied by Local Authorities amongst others, to protect these buildings which had once been the only phone within an entire village and still remained, for some, the primary telephone they had access to. It can be difficult to perceive in the current climate, where the majority own a mobile phone as well as a phone in their home, that these kiosks could potentially become socially important structures in communities. This was not only because of the telephone they housed, but they were effectively a congregation point, similar to that of the post office or local shop, where you might catch up with your neighbour.

The protected phone boxes, alongside other protected street furniture, still exist due to the work of organisations such as the Thirties Society and other kiosk enthusiasts, who did not want to see them disappear completely. Although a number of them were removed and replaced in the eighties and replaced by new phone boxes, over 2000 of them remain throughout England to be featured on Images of England as a testament to the longevity and connotations attached to the 1930s design.

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